How is Japan dealing with a volatile United States?

Mayumi Fukushima

President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe of Japan at the United Nations General Assembly (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Managing its relationship with the United States is one of the core challenges facing Japan, as it will need to attempt to resolve the inherent tension between enhancing the alliance relationship as well as reducing its dependence on the US. In our recent article in International Affairs, Richard J. Samuels and I argue that achieving improved crisis management, upgraded intelligence and centralised security policy-making through a successful National Security Council (NSC) – established in 2013 to streamline inter-agency national security policy-making processes – will be key to this. Given the volatility of the Trump administration and shifts in the balance of power within Japan’s region, the pressure on the Japanese government and its NSC to be able to direct its interactions with the US will be particularly high – especially given the fact that the NSC is anything but infallible. By looking at Tokyo’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Washington DC with regards to, first, North Korea and, second, its economic and trade policy, I will highlight that Japan seems to do better when the NSC is in charge.

North Korea

The Abe administration has been very concerned about President Donald Trump’s attempt to completely denuclearize the Korean peninsula and normalize relations with Pyongyang; considering both steps to be very premature. Tokyo’s input into Washington DC with cautionary tales – fully orchestrated by its NSC – has, however, gradually started to bear fruit. In November 2017, for example, Trump met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and just two weeks later re-designated North Korea as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’, a big return on Japan’s years-long efforts to persuade the US government to do so after President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list in 2008 despite Tokyo’s strong opposition.

Prior to the 2018 Singapore summit when President Trump seemed eager to strike a quick deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Shōtarō Yachi – a confidant of Premier Abe and head of the NSC’s secretariat – was sent to Singapore to warn US National Security Advisor John Bolton not to make easy concessions to North Korea. Abe himself visited Washington DC in early June and gained from Trump the reassurance that the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Pyongyang remained in force. Certainly, Trump did not fully live up to Japanese expectations during his Singapore summit. In fact, Trump’s unexpected announcement to suspend US – ROK joint military exercises, along with the omission of such words as ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID)’ from the Trump – Kim joint statement, disappointed Tokyo. However, the US president did raise the issue of Japanese abductees, as he had promised Abe on multiple occasions, and Kim reportedly did not respond in a manner consistent with his prior position that the abduction issue had already been resolved.

Then, on 24 August 2018, when another key player in the NSC, Foreign Minister Tarō Kōno, met with his US counterpart Mike Pompeo in San Francisco, the US secretary of state abruptly cancelled his planned trip to North Korea. He thereby publicly acknowledged the lack of progress with respect to North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize for the first time. The narrative of the overall interaction of Japan and the US, since the inauguration of President Trump, may show mixed results. However, it is clear from the case of North Korea that the Japanese government is able to influence the US administration, and that the NSC is crucial in this process.

Rough Environment for Japan

While the above-mentioned positive results cannot only be attributed to the NSC’s contributions, Japan’s foreign policies seem significantly less successful when the NSC is not in charge of them. Japan’s diplomatic manoeuvres to rein in Trump through, for example, its economic and trade policy toward the US – which do not fall under the NSC’s jurisdiction – seem to have been less effective. This shows how rough it can be for Japan to manage its alliance relationship with the US. For one, Japan’s effort to bring the US back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a top foreign policy priority for Tokyo – has produced limited results. Trump pulled his country out of the TPP on his very first working day in office in January 2017 after campaigning against it during his run to the presidency. In a meeting with Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort in April 2018, Trump flatly rejected his invitation to rejoin the TPP, even though the president had previously mentioned that returning to the TPP was a possibility. Moreover, even before this two-day meeting with Abe in Florida ended, Trump disgraced Abe by tweeting: ‘I don’t like the [TPP] deal for the United States … too many contingencies and no way to get out if it doesn’t work’. Since then US tariffs on Japanese exports of steel and aluminium have come into effect, and Tokyo has informed the WTO that it will be taking retaliatory measures. Finally, in another meeting with Abe in early June, Trump reportedly caught Abe off guard by declaring ‘I remember Pearl Harbor’ and then launching into a blistering critique of Japan’s economic policies. He urged Abe to negotiate a bilateral trade deal that would favour US beef and auto exporters, which Abe reportedly rebuffed immediately.


When armed with its NSC, Japan seems to be better able to rein in mercurial US foreign policies vis-à-vis east Asia through consistent diplomatic messages. However, its effectiveness in handling real security crises as well as achieving long-term policy reforms has yet to be seen. Moreover, due to Japan’s weak intelligence capability – and human intelligence gathering deficiencies in particular, as discussed in our recent International Affairs article – leaders in emergency situations may have to rush to a NSC meeting only to find little intelligence that could inform their discussion. In addition, the NSC’s procedural rule that requires the physical presence in Tokyo of at least three of the four NSC meeting members – the prime minister, chief cabinet secretary, foreign minister and defence minister – could render this forum useless if a crisis happens when the prime minister and other key members are away due to political campaigns or trips to foreign countries. Finally, the NSC’s current success with regard to North Korea may well be contingent on NSC secretariat chief Yachi’s exceptional access to Prime Minister Abe, as well as his de facto authority over the foreign ministry’s senior officials, his former subordinates. Once this 74-year-old skilled diplomat retires, weakened trust between future prime ministers and senior NSC officials could easily reignite inter-agency bureaucratic infighting, thereby eroding the NSC’s authority.

Mayumi Fukushima is a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Political Science and a Smith Richardson Foundation Predoctoral Fellow at Yale University’s International Security Studies Programme.

Her article, co-authored with Richard J. Samuels, in International Affairs is titled, ‘Japan’s National Security Council: filling the whole of government?’. It was published in our July special issue, ‘Japan’s pivot in Asia’.

Read the article online here.